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Seven Ways PIs Can Counteract Systemic Bias Right Now

Principal investigators are the monarchs of their science kingdoms. Here are seven things they can do for the betterment of the realm—ehrm, lab group.

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The geosciences have a problem with diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the past 40 years, the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the field hasn’t risen, and the geosciences are the least racially diverse field in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

When a worldwide call for racial justice in 2020 resonated into the halls, labs, and fields of geoscientists, postdoc Christine Y. Chen saw departments discussing strategic plans and systemic changes. “But there was also so much low-hanging fruit that could be implemented immediately to reduce harm happening to our most marginalized community members right now.”

Chen co-wrote a practical guide to be published in AGU Advances for principal investigators (PIs) to immediately enact change. The paper discusses actions leaders can take in the classroom, field, and lab and applies to any leader in science, including teaching assistants, lab technicians, and field organizers. These actions focus on how individuals can enact change in their spheres of influence.

Erika Marín-Spiotta, a biogeochemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who served as an independent reviewer of the work, said it’s “a must-read for those leading lab, classroom and field activities and who therefore have the responsibility to build and ensure safe, equitable, just, and inclusive environments.”

Here are seven takeaways from the paper.

1. Normalize talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in scientific settings.

“I had to hide the fact that I was doing any kind of work related to diversity, equity, and inclusion because it was seen as an activity that would take away from my primary science,” said Chen of her past research.

PIs can encourage discourse in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by talking openly about their own work in that space or articles they read about DEI. They can also organize a weekly seminar, like lead author and assistant professor Emily H. G. Cooperdock has done at the University of Southern California.

Scared to talk about it? Know that you’re not alone. “It’s not like there’s a group of us for whom it is not uncomfortable,” said Cooperdock. “That discomfort is part of the growth.”

Training in bystander intervention and conflict mitigation can help too.

2. Write fair and balanced reference letters.

Follow guides for reducing gender bias and racial bias when writing reference letters. And remember to watch for biased language when reading reference letters, too.

“There are actual social science studies to support that there are racial and gender bias introduced into letter writing,” Chen explained. It’s “one specific example of where faculty and PIs have the power to change the trajectory of their trainee’s career path.”

3. Design your class field trips to be universally accessible.

Create spaces for geoscientists with disabilities in class field trips. COVID-19 was a crash course in flexible course design, and the International Association for Geoscience Diversity is a great resource to keep the juices flowing.

Remember financial barriers, too.

Offer a gear-sharing locker so that first timers in the field can afford it. Consider dedicating a lecture to field basics: clothing, layering, tents, bathrooms, menstruation, hydration, etc. Chen lectured her sedimentology class about this and got great class reviews, she said.

4. Write safety plans for the field.

People who are nonwhite, LGBTQ+, disabled, and members of gender minorities and other minoritized groups face dangers in the field. PIs can help make them safer by implementing these 10 steps to protect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scholars in the field. Remember the challenges that LGBTQ+ scientists face in the field, too.

Use that information to write safety plans that include not only emergency medicine, supplies, and weather precautions but also field inclusivity, accessibility, and procedures for misconduct.

5. Partner with local communities.

Examples of scientific imperialism are common, like the phenomenon of many Africa-focused geoscience papers being written by non-African scientists. Scientists must break out of the colonial mold.

Dominique M. David-Chavez explained how she avoided this pattern in her doctoral research studying her Indigenous community’s climate knowledge. She first met with community elders and leaders in the Cidra and Comerío municipalities in Puerto Rico. “We asked them specifically what Indigenous environmental knowledge they felt was most important for the youth and future generations to learn about.”

6. Feature scientists from many backgrounds in the classroom.

Try featuring careers and real-life scientists in lectures. One community college professor did that in Texas at the end of each class.

Don’t know where to look for scientists from diverse backgrounds? Check out the profiles on the Diverse Geologist website or the Latinas in Earth and Planetary Sciences page (@geolatinas) and #BlackInGeoscience hashtag on Twitter.

7. Most important of all: You’re a leader. Just do something.

PIs may be the royalty of the science world, but with that power comes great responsibility.

When it comes to working on these issues, “there’s a wave of enthusiasm from a grassroots level, mainly [by] students, postdocs, and early-career people,” said Cooperdock.

But where she sees the most progress is in places where people at the top match that energy.

“The ball is really in other people’s court now,” said Chen. “The limitation is really: Will other people pick up the mantle and move to action?”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2021), Seven ways PIs can counteract systemic bias right now, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO155778. Published on 12 March 2021.
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